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Preparing for Polyamory

Christians should be aware of a growing cultural acceptance of multiple partners engaging in consensual relationships.
First of two parts.

Novel sexual trends in society have a way of sneaking up on the evangelical church.

Half a century ago, few in the pews saw the revolutionary way that cohabitation would become first a precursor to marriage and now often a replacement for the institution.

Likewise, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling making same-sex marriage the law of the land in 2015 stunned many conservative congregations. The rapid rise of transgender rights in the past couple of years has left numerous traditional Christians perplexed as well.

Today, a new cultural wave is on the horizon: polyamory. It entails a consensual sexual relationship made up of more than two partners.

While relatively few churches are grappling with this non-monogamous sexual relationship issue yet, Christian observers say it’s only a matter of time before polyamory becomes a topic inside the church building. And Christians would be well advised to construct a reasoned response now as to why polyamory isn’t God’s plan.

“There is a growing acceptance of polyamory in America,” declares Katy Faust, founder and director of Them Before Us, an organization that shines a spotlight on victims of nontraditional marriage policies. “Legally it is the new frontier in the push to redefine the family.”

The practice is finding an audience in different circles, including academia, as a legitimate lifestyle choice. Watchdogs believe before too long proponents will emerge on talk shows touting its benefits; newspaper editorials will be published urging its legal protection; and studies will be released declaring that such relationships are benign for everyone involved, including children growing up in such an atmosphere. HGTV helped destigmatize the practice in February by featuring Brian, Lori, and Geli — a “throuple” — on House Hunters.

Polyamorous participants don’t need to be married, just “open” about the relationship. Ironically, in rejecting the concept of sexual fidelity, polyamorists say they are being “honest” in the pursuit because everybody involved is OK with it. Polyamory isn’t polygamy — the illegal undertaking of having more than one wife or husband simultaneously.

“It’s non-monogamous — adultery with consent,” says author and counselor Joe M. Dallas. “Polyamory is to polygamy what living together is to marriage.”

Based on his research, Preston Sprinkle, president of the Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender, estimates around 5 percent of American adults are living in such a relationship — and as many as one out of every five adults has been in a “consensual nonmonogamy” relationship at some point.

“It’s becoming more prevalent,” says Sprinkle, who is based in Boise, Idaho. “It’s not a fringe movement way off in the future.”

While historically polygamy usually involves one man and two women, there is no limit to polyamory. It could be four women and one man; or vice versa.

Although Gallup public opinion surveys don’t specifically ask about polyamory, the pollster last year discovered a record high acceptance of polygamy. According to its annual issues index, 18 percent of Americans find polygamy “morally acceptable,” compared to 7 percent when Gallup began tracking it in 2001.

Sprinkle and others trace the growing acceptance to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing homosexual marriage in all 50 states.

“Once we affirm same-sex marriage as a culture, then there is nothing saying it must be only two people involved,” says Sprinkle, 44. In fact, while no culture recognized the legitimacy of homosexual marriage before this century, polygamy has been practiced in civilizations and among religious groups for millennia. In May, Utah decriminalized polygamy from a third-degree felony to an infraction.

The 29-page Obergefell dissent by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. alluded to such a consequence. He stated that the 5-4 ruling jeopardized the historical definition of marriage as a union between two people.

“Although the majority randomly inserts the adjective ‘two’ in various places, it offers no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not,” Roberts wrote. “Indeed, from the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world. If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one.”

“Gay marriage did the hard work in paving the way for polyamory,” says Faust, who lives in Seattle. According to Gallup, support for same-sex marriage is at an all-time high, with more than two-thirds of Americans approving.

Participants are using the same arguments gay rights activists uttered in the successful Obergefell case: they’re not hurting anyone; they’re in love; it’s consensual; they don’t want to be second-class citizens.

Faust, 44, sees similarities in polyamory and same-sex proponents.

“Both are completely centered on the desires of adults,” Faust says. “Their arguments are, This is who I am. This is what I want. This is what makes me happy.”

By basing arguments akin to same-sex marriage rights, polyamorists are striving to be recognized as a protected sexual minority class, thus seeking legal identity that would ban employment, housing, and other discrimination against them.

Jeff Logue, who has taught human sexuality for 16 years at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas, notes that the more traction the “sexual orientation” gains in the media, the more it will influence the beliefs of young people.

“It’s seen as just another alternative sexual lifestyle, a different flavor of ice cream,” says Logue, 48. In the late 20th century, consensual non-monogamous relationships frequently involved “swinging” and “open marriage”.

Beyond God’s intention of sexual relations to be between one married man and woman, experts believe polyamory is impractical for multiple reasons. Jealousy is at the top of the list.

While activists tout the benefits of “enjoying” multiple sexual liaisons, those in a polyamorous lifestyle struggle with trying to suppress innate feelings of envy and guilt, Logue maintains. That can lead to anxiety, depression, and anger. Some polyamorous set ups feature two married heterosexual couples who have become friends and in essence they swap spouses.

“That’s extremely unstable,” Logue says. “There is a disintegration of trust and people get hurt.”

Unlike a legally binding marriage, polygamous connections tend to be transitory. If one party becomes bored — or finds another more alluring offer elsewhere — he or she leaves.

The welfare of children involved also is a major concern. The lack of an expectation of permanence is one factor that creates an unstable environment for children.

“A mom and two dads or a dad and two moms is not God’s design for how kids should be raised,” Sprinkle says. “Children are designed to be reared by their mother and father. To add another person interrupts that.”

Dallas, 65, says the notion of everyone thriving in an arrangement with multiple people entangled in sexual pursuits is counterintuitive.

“Kids raised by five adults in a romantic or sexual relationship will not be as well- adjusted as those raised by a man and a woman in a monogamous relationship,” says Dallas, whose ministry is based in Tustin, California. “A biological mom and dad offer the maximum benefit for kids to develop.”

“Biological parents are the most connected to, protective of, and invested in their kids,” Faust says. “Generally, the addition of nonbiological adults in a child’s life diminishes the outcomes for that child’s well-being.”

Because polyamory is such a new field, it hasn’t been studied in depth by researchers yet. However, Faust says data extrapolated from other nontraditional families provides evidence that children suffer, physically, sexually, and emotionally. Often a polyamorous home features only one biological parent, and by definition always will include at least one nonbiological adult.

“An unrelated cohabitating man is statistically the most dangerous person in a child’s life,” Faust says.

Next: How should the Church respond to polyamory?

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.